Opinion: What’s This All About?


By Joe Hanauer
If you’re a bit confused about last week’s news regarding City actions to strengthen regulations for large commercial development, you’re not alone.

In Friday’s Indie a headline stated “City Council Proposes an Alternative Ballot Initiative”. Later that day in its online edition this was taken down with an apology that the article “had several inaccuracies and is in the process of being corrected.”

Contributing to the confusion, a councilmember in his letter to people he’s trying to generate as supporters, references last Tuesday’s Council action as a “Move To Counter Laguna Residents First Ballot Initiative”. As a councilmember engaged in the evening’s debate he knew this was not a “counter” to the Laguna Residents First PAC (LRF) ballot initiative. It was a continuation of a pending action actually requested by the very Council he sits on, many months ago.

So, what’s this all about. Last fall, concerned citizens and I sent a letter requesting the Council review commercial development standards to see if there were opportunities to ensure against overdevelopment beyond what’s already in the code.

The Council responded to our request. City staff was directed to work with the Planning Commission to strengthen the code if warranted. What the Council approved last Tuesday was the thoughtful outcome of those deliberations. The approved ordinance (it actually has a second reading coming up) will provide meaningful assurances that block long monolithic development cannot occur just as we urged them to do some months back. It also provides for a firm 36-foot height limit for new buildings with nothing… not equipment, roof top dining or anything else protruding above the 36-foot limit.

The approved ordinance is not a counter proposal to LRF. Regardless of whether LRF passes in November, and hopefully it won’t, the ordinance will be in place to even better, regulate over development. The ordinance will not be on the ballot in November. It is being implemented now by a majority vote of the Council—a long proven process both in Laguna and elsewhere.

What the authors of LRF don’t seem to understand or maybe simply don’t want to acknowledge, is that property standards and code regulations are dynamic. They constantly evolve over time reflecting new housing and commercial real estate concepts as they evolve. ADUs, outdoor dining, the impact of the internet on the size and configuration of retail stores, rooftop and outdoor dining, franchising, distribution facilities—each of these impact land use regulations and design. Cities need to respond.

Laguna’s building regulations have morphed over the past 50 years, changing as these and other influences have emerged. The City’s regulations have served us well. Walk around. Where are the large, oversized projects? This is not to say everything is perfect. Periodically something may be approved that shouldn’t have been, but that’s the way democracy works. Mistakes happen, but rarely.

And this is simply one of the major flaws of LRF. It proposes to create regulations that supersede much of what has developed over the past 50 years and unlike the real world where codes are dynamic and need to change from time to time, the only way the heavy-handed LRF regulations can be changed is if a public vote changes them. A city can’t operate if every time a change is needed a public vote one or two years out needs to occur. And historically the public only votes to overturn things they previously voted in, after years of damage and finally acknowledging that something has gone terribly wrong. Look at Costa Mesa acknowledging the damage its ballot initiative has caused. If LRF is approved by voters in November it is sure to be proven wrong but only after years of damaging outcomes. Not only will business neighborhoods continue unabated aging, but home values will likely be impacted as well.

LRF has promoters camped out at public places over weekends claiming LRF’s only purpose is to stop over development. Who would oppose that? But, its simply untrue. Either these proponents haven’t read LRF document, don’t understand it or are parroting what LRF organizers have told them. Look at the video of the City council meeting of July 26 and you’ll see just a few of the serious flaws of LRF. It goes so much further than only stopping over-development.

Editor’s Note: Joe owns multiple Laguna Beach commercial properties where he’s completed multiple major renovations and remodeling. Among them is the Old Pottery Place and 580 Broadway.

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  1. The reason the Laguna Beach City Council has modified zoning standards in Laguna is an effort to neutralize the impetus of the Laguna Residents First smart growth ballot initiative that will be voted on in November. Residents should remember that it only takes 3 votes on the council to change any zoning rules in the city and with a majority of the council supported by big developer dollars, chances are that this is just window dressing. The LRF initiative will give residents a meaningful seat at the table to decide the future of the city. It all boils down to who you trust: your friends and neighbors supporting the initiative or the council members beholden to the developer dollars that elected them.

  2. “Mistakes happen” says the author, a developer. And that’s precisely why we need the Laguna Residents First ballot initiative passed by voters in November. Developed over a two-year period with input from more than 200 residents and experts, it give residents a seat at the table on projects that affect their quality of life and property values. As for the “something that may be approved that shouldn’t have been” perhaps he’s referring to the project in the Canyon that meets nobody’s idea of “rural” and “small scale” which was approved by 3 council votes despite violating the Canyon Area Specific Plan, among others. And that’s the crux of the issue: passage of the ballot initiative is much harder to get around than the current system of modifications and variances. Developers like the author know this. Bringing reasonable projects forward instead of the current “business as usual” system will be the result as it has been for Dana Point, Newport and other cities. And by the way, Costa Mesa’s initiative is not the same as LRF’s, which bows to the state regarding housing mandates and exempts exclusively residential projects of 9 or less units and exclusively 100% affordable units.

  3. Susan, I trust the democratic process and the officials who are elected by my friends and neighbors – not some cranky bunch of complainers with no land use experience, no vision, and the audacity to portray Laguna as beholden to developers and on the verge of massive over-development. The lies that this group propagates is astounding, from the “Save Laguna” campaign (look around, please), to admonitions that the height limits are about to be eviscerated, to the granular overreach of their Initiative that will leave storefronts empty and decaying for decades to come because no retailer will spend that kind of money and wait that long for voter approval; to the flier that Laguna Residents First sent out claiming they saved the canyon from development 33 years ago, when they were formed just 3 years ago. The list goes on and on and they have certainly betrayed the trust of their friends and neighbors. This is much ado about nothing. Get outside, breathe, and enjoy this marvelous town that is already safeguarded from overdevelopment.

  4. Susan Skinner. Thank you. Having direct experience with a city adopted initiative and elected and developer pushback, you know more about the public and private process and implementation than anyone weighing in here.

    I fully agree that residents need a meaningful seat at the table to decide the future of our city. Our pro-development Council majority offering us “meaningful assurances” as referenced in this article “Guarantees Residents Absolutely Nothing.” Zero.

    Fact is, 3 votes and any quick-fix timely developer campaign-driven “city building modifications” being promoted as protective measures during an election can be just as quickly overturned. Poof. Election over. Back to normal anti-resident, pro-business activities at city hall.

    Voters – don’t lose this direct opportunity in November to be an active part of determining your city’s future. No matter who oversees our city government, they should be listening and serving us, not dictating what will be done with our personal and public city investments. Follow neighboring coastal cities who have adopted customized initiatives and who encouraged all stakeholders involved to work together for the long-term benefit of their city.

    #LRFInitiative=YES. #CCIncumbents=NO, #CityLoopholeOrdinance/Initiative=NO


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